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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Greatest Dungeon Masters in the World: Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax 1938-2008
This is the fifth entry in my series on the greatest dungeon masters of all time, and it features perhaps the most legendary name in RPG history: Gary Gygax.

In this article, I will go over the basics of Gary's campaign and then in the second half I will offer up some stories from the original Castle Greyhawk campaign, some of which were taken from Gary's dragon magazine articles, others taken from online posts by Gary and his former players.

I am no expert on Gary Gygax. Most of this information came to me while I was planning out a Castle Greyhawk campaign that I never actually ran a few years ago. So please forgive me if I've overlooked something or made an error on a detail.

Back in the early 70's, Dave Arneson got the ball rolling on the whole concept of role playing games with Castle Blackmoor, and once Gary Gygax got wind of Arneson's game he rolled up his sleeves and refined it with his own Castle Greyhawk.

Both men were members of a miniatures wargame society, so the game's rules grew from those. Gygax's Castle Greyhawk campaign refined and defined the rules of the game that would become Dungeons & Dragons.

Gary's players were people he played miniature wargames with, as well as his neighbors and his kids. Many of the characters in his campaigns have become a part of D&D lore, with many of their names stamped on a spell or magic item.
 
Jon Peterson wrote a fantastic article on how Gygax lost control of his own company here. Basically, TSR had a lot of money coming in during the early 80's and made some bad choices (buying a needlepoint company being the most infamous). Gary and the Blumes had a hard time managing a company that expanded at an insanely swift rate. Tensions boiled over and shares were sold.

My focus in these columns is on the work of the DM rather than their life or style. This is a blog about Dungeon Masters, and there is nothing more fun or insightful than hearing about a great DM's games, especially when it is a game that literally shaped Dungeons & Dragons and role playing games as a whole.

The Campaign World

Greyhawk is just south of Nyr Dyv
The world map was based on the real world Lake Geneva region. The planet was known as "Oerth", which a lot of people pronounced similar to "Earth". Apparently Gary actually pronounced it: "OY-TH".

Mapping

His games featured a lot of mapping of dungeons. As the heroes explored, one player had to draw what Gary described on graph paper. Part of the game was trying to figure out when a passage was gently sloping. Ideas like pouring some water on the ground and seeing where it trickled help, until Gary started having water seeping into the floor's many cracks. It was up to the players to get it right based off of Gary's descriptions. Getting lost in Castle Greyhawk was a very real possibility.

How Gary Ran His Games
 
According to a former player named Mike Mornard, they played in Gary's office. Gary would open cabinets and drawers so that the players could not see him, just hear him. One player was the designated "caller" - he'd announce what the group did. The other players weren't supposed to talk or chatter among themselves. Doing so was tantamount to character suicide. Apparently it was a very tense experience. I don't think Gary ran his games "behind a curtain" for long, but apparently he did do this for a period.

Also, kobolds were no joke. They had a habit of keeping the magic items of the characters they killed. How cool is that? Due to the regular influx of characters into the dungeon who died, the kobolds had considerable loot to use against future PCs.

Castle Greyhawk was run in a very interesting way. There was a pool of about 30 players, and whoever showed up to play that day went in the dungeon. Usually a group consisted of 12-20 players, although it eventually became "cool" to play solo.

Player Skill

Here's a great anecdote from the Blog of Holding:

"As Mike Mornard DMed us through a brown-book OD&D dungeon crawl, he told us a little about player skill. Apparently, among the original Greyhawk players, Rob Kuntz was good at D&D. He was good enough to adventure solo, not even bringing henchmen, and survive threats that would threaten whole parties of less skilled players. Once Kuntz started going on solo dungeon delves, it became the thing to do, even among other players who didn't have Kuntz's player skill.

Mike told us the story of one of Gary's lesser players who decided to go adventuring alone. He encountered a room filled with gems. Apparently, he didn't suspect that Gary was trying anything devious: he ran into the room and started reveling in his treasure. 'It's great!' said Gary (from behind his file cabinet, presumably). 'You're in gems up to your ankles!'


The player showered himself with gems like Daffy Duck. 'I'm independently wealthy!' (As a one-time recipient of a cache of random gems, I can relate to the player's joy.) 'It's great!' said Gary. 'You're in gems up to your knees!' The player shoveled gems into his pack. 'It's great!' said Gary. 'You're in gems up to your waist!' I'm sure you can see where this story is going. When the player tried to leave, he found out that he was sinking in quicksand covered with three inches of gems."

Castle Greyhawk, the Greatest Adventure That Never Was

People have always wanted Gary to publish Castle Greyhawk as an official D&D product. There were a number of efforts:
  • Castle Greyhawk: Published by TSR in 1985 just after Gygax was ousted from his own company. This adventure was a parody, featuring stuff like The Pillsbury Dough Golem and The Amazing Drider Man. Some believe this was an intentional slap to the face to Gary, while others believe it was just a really stupid idea.
  • Greyhawk Ruins: This was a dense boxed set published for AD&D second edition by Blake Mobley. This is an adventure that some enjoy and others feel is pretty dull.
  • Expedition to Castle Greyhawk: This is a 3rd edition version featuring some great maps that many think quite highly of. The dungeon is not complete, this book just details certain sections. I personally love the detail on the city of Greyhawk.
  • Castle Zagyg: Before Gary passed away, he began publishing his dungeon with the serial numbers filed off. Sadly, he passed away before it could be completed.
  • Gord the Rogue: Gary wrote a series of novels featuring Gord the Rogue, which is set in Greyhawk. You get quite a few details on Castle Greyhawk and all sorts of other D&D-related stuff that Gary had intended to make material for, including the Shadowland (Gary apparently had given Skip Williams notes to make a Shadowland adventure to be published by TSR, but it never happened.)
  • Bottle City: Rob Kuntz was the co-DM of Castle Greyhawk. He has published a few versions of his areas of the dungeon. Bottle City is a pretty awesome old school adventure.
Gary's Characters

Mordenkainen
Gary himself ran characters when Rob Kuntz would DM. Rob would sometimes run Castle Greyhawk and also his own dungeon, El Raja Key, set in his world of Kalibruhn. Rob's castle was immortalized in the official published D&D adventure "Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure". A revised/expanded version of the castle was published in issues of Dungeon Magazine as "Maure Castle".

Gary's most famous character is the magic-user Mordenkainen. His henchmen included: Zigby (a dwarf), Rigby (a cleric), Sigby Griggbyson (a fighter), Nigby (Bigby's apprentice) and Digby.

Gary had his characters and NPCs form a group known as "The Circle of Eight". In official D&D products, there is a Circle of Eight, but there are different members. The real life Gary Gygax Circle of Eight (+1) includes: Mordenkainen (who owns two red dragons named "Gorky" and "Porky"), Bigby, Yrag (A fighter, Gary's first character), Riggby, Felnorith (A fighter who collects swords), Sigby Grigbyson (fighter), Ziggby (the leader of Mordenkainen's 300 dwarf followers), Vin & Vram (elf twins). They lived in a place made of obsidian called the "Citadel of Eight". This information was gleaned from dragonsfoot.

The Heroes of Castle Greyhawk

Lord Robilar
Many of these names are very recognizable and have been featured in all sorts of different official products. This is a partial list of some of the more famous names. They started out as regular old characters just like yours or mine:

Erac's Cousin (Ernie Gygax)
Melf Brightflame (Luke Gygax) Leader of the Knights of Luna. Likeable, naive, loves ladies.
Lord Robilar (Rob Kuntz) Claims to fear nothing and no one.
Terik (Terry Kuntz) Robilar's brother, enemy of Mordenkainen.
Murlynd (Don Kaye) A wizard who ended up taking a trip to the old west
Tenser (Ernie Gygax) Likes melee combat.
Ayelerach (A Mark Ratner) Fighter, companion of Erac's Cousin, accidentally helped to free Fraz-Urb'luu.
Monk with No Name (Terry Kuntz) - Burns and steals for greed, has squirrel messengers. Had an elaborate blackmail scheme going against Ayelerach.
Lessnard (Mike Mornard)
Rary - (Brian Blume) On the Dragonsfoot forums, Gary Gygax wrote: "Rary was a low-level PC of Brian Blume. He wanted him to make "Medium," so he could be Medium Rary. That's how the character was played...if one can call it that."
Leomund (Len Lakofka)
Drawmij (Jim Ward)

The Dungeons in Castle Greyhawk

Old Greyhawk Castle had 13 levels, and many side or sub-levels:

Level One: A simple dungeon full of introductory rooms.
Level Two: Had two special locations, a nixie pool and a fountain of snakes.
Level Three: A prison with torture chambers.
Level Four: Crypts and undead.
Level Five: Lots of gargoyles and a font of black fire.
Level Six: A repeating maze full of wild hogs (???). Also, wereboars.
Level Seven: A labyrinth and a massive street full of ogres.
Levels Eight-Ten: Caves and caverns with trolls, giant bugs and a teleport nexus guarded by an evil wizard.
Level Eleven: The most powerful wizard in Castle Greyhawk lived here. He had balrog servants. There were also lots of white apes from Mars (the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars).
Level Twelve: Full of dragons!
Level Thirteen: This is the bottom of the dungeon which has a very amusing slide in it. In later products, this area has a "god-trap" that a mad wizard named Zagyg used to siphon power off of deities with.

Obmi the Dwarf
 
Gary wrote about Obmi in Dragon Magazine #287. Obmi was a villain, a dwarf with boots of speed and a dwarven thrower. He also had this machine that shot a beam of light that forced those struck with it to run in the opposite direction. The heroes came after him and were repelled twice. The third time, they destroyed his machine but were enraged when he used his boots of speed to flee.

The heroes swore to hunt him down, and he became Castle Greyhawk's first arch-villain. Gary would end up using Obmi in his Gord the Rogue books and in the "Against the Giants" module series.

The Jeweled Man

Sometimes the heroes would run into this man made of gold, encrusted with gems. He was clearly worth a fortune. And don't forget - in this version of the game, gold gave you experience points! Treasure could literally make you gain levels!

The greedy players would  hunt down and chase the mysterious man, but inevitably would be led into a trap or a horde of monsters. The heroes started to get paranoid and possessive:

"To reflect the attitudes of the PCs, it was natural to use innuendo to suggest one or another character was planning to capture the Jeweled Man alone. Solo adventures among the most able players were rare thereafter, as their peers were loathe to allow one of their number a chance to catch the Jeweled Man alone."

Erac's Cousin

First there was Erac, a wizard who ended up trapped alone in a room in the dungeon. There were no exits. The ceiling was painted like a starry sky. He never figured out how to get out, and died of starvation.

The player then made a new character, Erac's cousin. He never told anyone his real name. He looted his cousin's corpse and figured out the room (secret words in the stars). He'd later be tricked by a fellow PC named Bombadil into handing over powerful magic items.

Back in Castle Greyhawk, he fell through a portal to Wonderland. He traded Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum some stuff in exchange for the first D&D vorpal sword. He ended up finding a second vorpal sword in Castle Greyhawk. From then on, his strategy was to summon monsters, fire off some ranged spells, and then wade into melee with his dual-wielded vorpal swords.

Gary finally had enough of this and concocted an elaborate scheme to get rid of these powerful magic items. The demon lord Fraz'ub'luu tricked the heroes into freeing him. The adventurers summoned Zeus.. yes, ZEUS.. to help them fight the demon lord. But to their dismay, Zeus ignored them. Fraz'ur'bluu took them to a prison, drained the magic from the swords and tortured them until they somehow escaped.

He is maybe most famous for going to Mars. At the time, Gary wanted to test out some sci fi rules. Erac's Cousin found that magic didn't work there, so he started gaining levels as a fighter as he battled cannibals and green martian. He was most dismayed when he returned to Oerth naked, with none of the awesome treasure he'd obtained on Mars. Once he returned to adventuring in Castle Greyhawk, he'd declare whether he was adventuring as a fighter or a magic-user and use those rules.

The Slide to China
 
The God-Trap
So what's at the bottom of Castle Greyhawk? A slide that brings you to the other side of the world - China! Don't ask me. Only three characters reached the bottom level - Robilar, Tenser and Terik. They had to travel back from China (which may have been re-named "Cathay") via the "outdoor adventure" rules. Gary talked a bit about this here:

"Hoist by my own petard! These three, separately, had attained the nadir (pinnacle in terms of success) of the dungeons, and thanks to Zagig were sent "clean through the earth" to a distant land. Having sown the seeds of my own undoing, how could I complain? So I was faced with major works of improvisation as one after another of these PCs (for the record Robilar, Tenser, and Terik) made their separate ways around the globe, seeking to reunite as they quested for their own homeland. While I was 
pleased with their enjoyment of the adventuring fare, it was less palatable to the DM. As it happened, each character decided on a different route for their trek. My capacity to invent interesting, different, and exciting material on the spot was stretched to the limit by a long series of one-character adventures, and I determined never to go through such a trial again. So as the triumphant trio of PCs who had penetrated to the lowest level of Castle Greyhawk and survived being sent as far from there as the world allowed received their well-earned laurels from their less enterprising fellows, as DM, more world building was feverishly in progress."

Rob Kuntz says:

"Robilar was one of the first to make it around the Oerth. By entering the lowest level in Greyhawk Castle, he was propelled by a magical slide to what would be modern day "China." Teric and Tenser followed, as they missed his return to the first level of the Castle, which, as a team, this trio held sway over. They caught up with him by scrying and they finished the adventure together. They all split later - Teric visited the southeast area around the Sea Barons (he was looking for Voodoo-type areas), Tenser went home, and Robilar trudged down into the southern jungles, far past the reach of Sea Prince slavers."

The Temple of Elemental Evil

When Gary was writing the classic adventure "Temple of Elemental Evil", he invited Rob Kuntz over to playtest it. Rob's character Lord Robilar was pretty high level, and he thoroughly destroyed the monsters in the dungeon, to Gary's dismay. Gary apparently got revenge by sending out a massive army chasing after Robilar, who fled to the desert.

Rob wrote about this in Oerth Journal #7:

"In CY 575, Robilar traveled with his henchmen Quij and Otto the Mage to the Temple of Elemental Evil. Robilar traveled on his flying carpet and Quij and Otto followed on griffons. Robilar entered the temple complex with Otto, leaving Quij behind to guard the griffons and flying carpet. 

While other adventurers raided the temple and then withdrew, Robilar entered the temple and fought his way through it. For two days he slew all he encountered. Eventually Robilar freed the demoness Zuggtmoy, who was imprisoned beneath the temple complex. (Artifact of Evil states that Mordenkainen was present and purposefully assisted in "freeing" Zuggtmoy in some scheme designed to preserve the Balance. This was a later literary addition by E. Gary Gygax.) 
 
Zuggtmoy
Why did Robilar free Zuggtmoy? Robilar purposefully released the demoness, because too much good was going on around the place. In a manner, to balance the proceedings. Alerted by the "freeing" of the demoness, a Force of Good rushed to the temple complex in an attempt to recapture the demoness and to punish her liberators. Tenser and his associates arrived, with Burne, Rufus, Otis and a great force of elves, paladins and unicorns. Upon seeing the destruction of her temple complex and the gathering Force of Good, Zuggtmoy departed in great haste. Robilar and Otto fled back to his castle, with the Force of Good in hot pursuit. The druid Jaroo, in falcon form, followed Robilar and Otto over 200 miles back to Robilar's castle. After they were informed of his whereabouts, the good war party eventually rallied outside of Robilar's castle. Robilar and Otto abandoned the castle and it fell to the Forces of Good."

Campaign Outline

This is Rob Kuntz's remembering of when the major events happened in the original campaign, as reposted on the canonfire forums:
  1. Adventures into Greyhawk Castle by Teric, Robilar, Murlynd, Tenser, and Elise Gygax's cleric (whose name has been forgotten)
  2. The Wight Adventure--all a dream--by Tenser and Robilar
  3. Other adventures--Otto Captured by Tenser (Otto was a denizen of the castle that would eventually join the heroes)
  4. 561 CY  Mordenkainen and Bigby lay the foundation of the Citadel of Eight. 
  5. The Orc Level of Greyhawk Battles: Quij Slays a Troll and is raised in level (Quij was Robilar's favored NPC henchman)
  6. Otto joins Robilar out of distaste for his captor
  7. The first level of the dungeon is sealed and fortified by the same three. "Building of the "three" 3 Keeps (the three towers are part of official D&D lore, noted even in Expedition to Castle Greyhawk).
  8. The Solo Adventures of Robilar.
  9. Robilar in the Troll Dens.
  10. Robilar and a gargoyle against a black dragon and Purple worm in level 6 of the dungeon.
  11. Robilar goes to "China".
  12. Teric and Tenser follow Robilar to China. All 3 heroes had ended up wandering down a sloping corridor right to the bottom of the dungeon, to Gary's shock. Gary wrote about this in Dragon Magazine #295.
  13. Trip back homeward. Journey to the City of Brass with flying carpets, rocs and the gems
  14. Three different routes: Tenser heads home, Teric looks for forces of voodoo in the southern isles and Robilar adventures into modern day Hepmonaland where he is captured and his +1 bow left behind when he escapes.
  15. Solo Adventures by Teric into Castle.
  16. Heavy outdoor adventures begin.
  17. Tenser Acquires red dragons.
  18. Teric acquires a black dragon.
  19. Robilar acquires three green dragons but loses his efreeti doing so.
  20. City of Greyhawk has grown 4 fold with wealth flowing out of castle.
  21. The White Dragon and the Wizard of the Tower Adventure by Robilar.
  22. 569 CY Battle of Emridy Meadows, Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure.
  23. 570 CY Loosing of the "Nine" by Robilar in GH castle (Robilar stumbled on a magic prison containing nine demigods, each trapped on a different magic platform. Robilar tried to free the most powerful-looking one to kill it, but things went horribly wrong).
  24. Strange Way and Odd Alley adventures by Robilar, finds a ring of spell turning.
  25. Tenser finds the Magic-User's Crown.
  26. Robilar turns evil and kills some of his retainers, but one escapes to tell the tale. 
  27. 571 CY Robilar completes the Tomb of Horrors. Gary constructed the dungeon to challenge and kill his high-level characters, but grew increasingly frustrated as Robilar survived. Robilar used his orc henchmen as canon fodder to survive the opening death traps. He did not fight Acererak the demi-lich. He stole Acererak's treasure and fled! Rob says: ""Robilar went with his equipment as per the Rogues Gallery. Plus 5 orcs, no more, no less. One orc refused my order to enter the entry corridor that I was suspicious of. So I immediately killed him, which warmed the other orcs to obeying similar orders forthcoming." Tenser and Terik fled the dungeon. Jim Ward had a character named Ren o' the Blade survive as well.
  28. 572 CY Erac's Cousin turns to evil after being tormented into swearing a pact with Baalzebul.
  29. 579 CY Sacking of the Temple of Elemental Evil by Robilar.
  30. Robilar's castle is sacked by the forces of good. He goes into hiding.
  31. Adventure to the City of the Gods, Robilar and Mordenkainen (I believe Dave Arneson himself ran Gary and Rob through this published adventure.)
Other Sources

There's a lot of fun sources for Greyhawk stories out there:
If you want to read more Castle Greyhawk stuff,  check out this follow-up article where I detail a bunch of cool Gary Gygax Castle Greyhawk encounters.

Check out my articles on the other Greatest Dungeon Masters of All Time:

Dave Arneson
Ed Greenwood
Chris Perkins
Monte Cook

1 comment:

Sean Robert Meaney said...

I think about the purchase of that needle point company and wonder if they intended to mass produce cloth greyhawk maps or d&d sweaters.